Leonard Cohen: Always a Jew at Heart

November 13, 2016

5 min read


The influential musician had a deep connection with Israel and the Jewish people.

Although Leonard Cohen, the influential, world-famous Canadian-Jewish musician, who died on November 7, 2016 at age 82, abandoned many aspects of his Jewish religion, he never forgot his connection to the Jewish people and Jewish homeland.

Born in Montreal in 1934, Cohen began playing folk guitar when he was 15, and became part of Canada’s avant garde musical scene. As a young man, he wrote novels and poetry, before devoting himself to folk music in the 1960s. Many of his beautifully-crafted songs recall his Jewish heritage. His 1974 “Who by Fire” was inspired by the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, he explained, and echoes the powerful U’Nesaneh Tokef prayer of Yom Kippur. “Hallelujah”, one of Cohen’s most famous songs, spoke about King David, author of the Book of Psalms: “Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played, and it pleased the Lord.”

Other songs commented on Jewish experiences. When Cohen was living in Europe in the 1980s, he wrote “First We Take Manhattan”, depicting the way he felt as a Jew, appreciating European life but keenly aware that Jews had been murdered in those very places: “I love your body and your spirit and your clothes / But you see that line there moving through the station? / I told you, I told you, told you, I was one of those.”

The Yom Kippur War broke out and Cohen booked a flight to Tel Aviv, wanting to help.

Cohen was living in Greece In 1973, when the Yom Kippur War broke out in Israel and he immediately felt that he wanted to do whatever he could to help the Jewish state. While many people might have watched the war unfold from afar, Cohen booked a flight to Tel Aviv. His plans were vague; he thought he might volunteer on a kibbutz to help fill the labor shortage as young men were called up to fight.

Cohen singing to Israeli troops.

Instead, he was spotted in a Tel Aviv cafe by Israeli singer Oshik Levi, who explained to Cohen that he was about to go to the Sinai Peninsula to entertain the troops and suggested that Cohen join him. Cohen did and spent several months travelling around Israel entertaining troops.

On his first day singing for the troops, Cohen found a quiet spot between concerts and wrote the words to one of his most moving songs, “Lover Come Back to Me”, a wish that Israel’s troops be protected: “And may the spirit of this song, / may it rise up pure and free. / May it be a shield for you, / a shield against the enemy.” In a concert in Tel Aviv in 1980, Cohen explained that the song was inspired “by the grace and the bravery of many Israeli soldiers at the front”.

Leonard Cohen in Israel

The following years were at times chaotic for Leonard Cohen. He experimented with Buddhism, and in the 1990s even became a Buddhist monk though, at the time, he insisted “I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.” His professional life was in turmoil during this time: his long-time manager Kelley Lynch started stealing from him, eventually taking millions from the singer-songwriter, leaving Cohen near-broke, and started a campaign of harassment, calling and threatening Cohen many times a day. (Lynch was eventually sentenced to 18 months in prison in 2012.)

In the midst of these troubles, Cohen was targeted by anti-Israel activists insisting that he refrain from performing in the Jewish state. After Cohen announced that would be performing in Israel in 2009, anti-Zionists started picketing his concerts, yelling at audience members, screaming outside concert venues, and holding up anti-Israel posters during Cohen’s concerts.

At first, Cohen tried to negotiate with those who criticized his decision to perform in Israel, taking his protestors at their face value. If the protesters who were hounding him and disrupting his concerts wanted Cohen to help Arabs, he was more than willing to do so. Cohen arranged a concert in Ramallah and even though he was in need of funds himself, asked Amnesty International to help him donate the proceeds of his Tel Aviv concert to peace groups.

Instead of welcoming these gestures, Cohen’s would-be partners rejected them outright. Amnesty International refused to work with Cohen. The Ramallah Cultural Palace, which was to host Cohen’s concert, cancelled, saying that Cohen would not be welcome in Ramallah if he performed in Israel, too. In the midst of the controversy, Cohen, by then in his 70s, collapsed onstage during a performance in Valencia Spain.

Undaunted, Cohen refused to give up. His September 24, 2009 concert near Tel Aviv sold out within hours and he played to a packed audience of about 55,000 Israelis. “May your life be as sweet as apples dipped in honey,” Cohen told his fans, and recited blessings over the crowd.

Though in dire need of funds himself, he took no money from the concert, donating the $1 million to charity. Since Amnesty International refused to work with him, Cohen set up a fund of his own, calling it the Fund for Reconciliation, Tolerance and Peace. One program Cohen funded was an Israeli charity that brings together Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in terror attacks and war.

Cohen’s last album, “You Want it Darker”, a somber album confronting mortality, came out just weeks before his death. Its title track features background singing by Gideon Zelermyer, the chazzan, or cantor, of the Orthodox synagogue that Cohen belonged to in Montreal, and includes Cohen singing a translation of the Jewish mourner’s prayer. On Thursday, November 10, 2016, Cohen was laid to rest in an Orthodox Jewish ceremony.

Montreal’s Congregation Shaar Hashomayim released a statement that Cohen “was a beloved and revered member” and that “Leonard’s wish was to be laid to rest in a traditional Jewish rite beside his parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.”

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